Understanding changing audience behaviour

Why communications businesses need to keep up with behavioural change, by Mark Chambers, Head of Corporate Communications, the Department for Education

Perhaps the biggest change in the world of communications over the last decade has been how everything has become more personalised. The start of the century saw a huge shift from print to online, but the last ten years have been marked by much of that information being relocated from your desktop or laptop to your smartphone or tablet. 

In short, your audience has shifted from their desk to just about anywhere inside or outside of their home. Your customers, clients or stakeholders may be viewing your content from their sofa, a restaurant, bus, place of worship, or even the front benches of the House of Commons. 

An increasing number of people are smartphone-first, with many being smartphone-only. This has seen a marked change on how we write, how we design and how we get in touch with our clients, their markets and the media. We are now directing information to our target’s hand rather than their desk. 

But this has also meant that we have gained in terms of data and insight about those we are speaking to. So we can now be as impactful and as up to the minute as possible when delivering them. 

This, coupled with the seemingly unstoppable growth and expansion of social media, means that we are now communicating visually far more often and far more effectively. You can connect with an animation, video or image far more quickly than you can with text. Your job as a communicator is to provide something that will simply stop them scrolling. You often have less than one second to do that. 

Live and direct

We are also finding that those we may work for, be it in marketing or PR, are both aware of and adept at talking directly to their audiences. You have CEOs, politicians and even the former President of the US, in the case of Donald Trump, firing off unedited missives to their followers. So, comms professionals can often find themselves picking up the pieces when something goes wrong, as it inevitably does on social media. 

We need a reason and an argument to insert ourselves into that equation before the troubles start, which can often be difficult when we are talking about large personalities. Some can do it well, but a professional can always improve on that. 

I don’t think we can abandon traditional media, be it in print or online, altogether. In times when there is so much information, and so much false information, the media serves as filter, fact-checker and arbiter of what is worth paying attention to. I can’t see that changing any time soon, no matter how audiences change or how information is disseminated. 

At the Education and Skills Funding Agency, which is an arms-length body of the Department for Education, we have a channel of communication that is almost as large as any media outlet we might approach. We have a LinkedIn channel with 115,000 connections, mostly with those in the business of education. This is invaluable in disseminating messages and can be far more effective for us than a press release, as it arrives directly to those we want to reach, unfiltered. 

Audiences and data

We get feedback and plenty of data on which devices which audiences are using to access certain content, and adjust our future campaigns accordingly. That allows us to be reactive in ways we never would have considered.

When it comes to how I look at audiences and how they change over time, I still use things like Mintel and old fashioned audience research, speaking directly to those we communicate with. That is some of what I really enjoy. After all, we are not robots. We are in comms because we like to talk to others, to get a message out there. 

In terms of how I move with the times, well we use data to build our audience personas, taking the insights we receive from interaction to identify new personas or build on our existing ones. Previously, these would have been a more traditional mix of experience, projection and optimism. The use of data also allows us to keep our personas and target audiences up to date. 

People often forget that personas have a shelf life, as they either move up into a new demographic, or the age group you are targeting completely changes its media tastes or behaviours. Your 21-year-old student is a different person in so many ways just five years on. They may be on their way to a second job, saving for a home or starting their own business. 

Eyes on the future

There is always talk about the newest platforms, as well. I think TikTok is breaking through beyond its younger audience now and, at the very least, other social media platforms are integrating or copying TikTok. People are sometimes quick to dismiss it as something that is ‘not for our client’, but you can bet they will be asking about it before long, because their kids are using it or telling them they should be on there. 

There is a World Cup coming up and those sorts of mass events can make a piece of tech or an app. And that is rarely by accident. This is a global event that brands throw millions of pounds at. I think this is all set to be the TikTok World Cup, from condensed data analysis to dancing fans or players. These big events often catalyse the way that communications trends are going and allow tech companies to test and popularise new apps or features. Expect to see something new emerge. 

That said, podcasts will be huge at the World Cup, as well. I really love them because you can’t yet predict what will and what won’t work. Who would have thought that Peter Crouch, not the most vocal of football players, would have one of the most successful BBC podcasts? This is a fascinating mix of old format with new tech and they really benefit from the oldest of communication methods, word of mouth, to spread. It is both counterintuitive and quite heartwarming. 

It also shows that you can never truly predict how audience behaviour will change over time. You can, and should, have a very educated guess as to where your target audiences will be in five or even ten years. But there will always be the new platform or outlier you never saw coming. 

Mark Chambers is Head of Corporate Communications at the Department for Education.

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